Monday, 28 July 2003
War and Peace.
I'd really like to respond to Steven Den Beste's over-the-top "strategic overview" of the War on Terror; it deserves to be answered and refuted at length, and Steven is practically daring me to do it—I'd like to take on that task, but I have a day job, for crying out loud. Steven cranks out 1,000-word essays more often than I change my socks; I'm lucky if I can do more than skim his latest opus while I'm getting ready for work in the morning.
I will say this, though: When the first sentence of your outline is titled "What is the root cause of the war?", and you then go on about Why Arabs Suck for twenty lines without ever actually identifying a root cause… well, this is not a promising beginning. Steven's original outline is in gray; my comments are in blue:
- What is the root cause of the war?
Root cause implies a single catalyst. Saying that "X is the root cause of the war" says that if we could travel back in time and prevent X from occurring, the whole war would never have happened. The only actor whose premature death might have prevented this war is Osama bin Laden, whose role in the forming of Al Qaeda may have been pivotal enough that killing him in '93 would have kept the planes from hitting the World Trade Center; any other "root cause" fails the litmus test, unless you want to allow "Islam" (or "America") as your root cause.
- Collective failure of the nations and people in a large area which is predominately Arab and/or Islamic.
America does not wage war on "collective failures of nations and people in a large area" just because they are not measuring up to our standards. If we did, our War on Africa would take precedence over a war in the Mideast. This cannot be our root cause.
- Economically the only contribution they make is by selling
natural resources which are available to them solely through luck.
If Arabs have natural resources "solely through luck," then Europeans were lucky beyond any other culture's wildest fantasies: They began their journey up the cultural ladder blessed with three of the five major cereal crops (wheat, oats, and barley), the top three farm animals (cows, pigs, and sheep), lush forests, rich soil, high annual rainfall, and easy access to mineral ores. Meanwhile the Arabs got goats, mineral-poor soil, not enough rain, and simply didn't have the food surpluses throughout most of history to sustain as many Newtons and Galileos and John Stuart Mills as Europe did. This is the "born on third base and thinks he hit a triple" scenario writ large.
make no significant contribution to international science or engineering.
See above. You can make the argument that the last 50 years of Arab culture have played out along "redneck wins lottery, goes bankrupt" lines—that the governments and peoples of the Middle East have largely squandered the proceeds of their oil windfall—but these governments were imposed upon the Arabs by Western interests and dedicated to the proposition that oil men are creating equity. Slamming those governments now for not promoting the welfare of their citizens is a spectacular change of direction from our policies of the previous century, which at best were isolationist and at worst put tyrants in charge.
make little or no cultural contribution to the world. Few seek out their
poetry, their writing, their movies or music. The most famous Muslim
writer of fiction in the world is under a fatwa death sentence now and
lives in exile in Europe.
In the world outside San Diego, Iran's movie industry is at its artistic and financial peak: Films like Kandahar and Baran are raking in jury prizes and box office receipts; the most famous Muslim director of movies in the world has a Palme d'Or on his mantle. Salman Rushdie's example does not support the claim that Muslims "make little or no cultural contribution to the world;" that would be like citing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as proof that Russian writers were inarticulate hacks.
- Their only diplomatic relevance is due
to their oil.
Oil, oil, oil. "Diplomatic relevance" is such a nebulous term that I can't really say what it means—a personal measure of how important a country is to Steven Den Beste, maybe, or perhaps a fancy way of saying that if the Arabs didn't have all that oil, then we would ignore them and their petty troubles just like we ignore Bolivia or Senegal. There are many, many countries that are "diplomatically irrelevant" on this scale, and it doesn't necessarily follow that these countries are failures.
- They are not respected by the world, or by
…and our strategy is to raise their self-respect by humiliating their armies in battle? Be serious.
- Since this is a "face" culture, shame about this this has led to rising but unfocused discontent, anger and resentment.
Yes, and it's a lucky thing that Jacksonian America is not a "face" culture—goodness knows where we'd be if America's neo-cons held grudges for years at a time, or if they were not so tolerant of slights and humiliations. Or, heck, for that matter we're lucky that Germany and France are not "face" cultures, and were so eager to forgive that "Old Europe" crack from the other month. Yes sir-ee, it's a good thing we advanced civilizations have moved past that "face" culture stage, because if we hadn't the whole Third Infantry Division might be stuck in Iraq right now, with no friendly foreign relief troops in sight. (Except for the Japanese, of course. Aren't they a "face" culture?)
- Some governments in the region have tried to focus it elsewhere so as to
deflect it away from themselves. (The "Zionist Entity" is a
Agreed. Trying to deflect blame is unfortunately not unique to the Middle East (and I'll resist making any digs about George Tenet and Condi Rice here), but no question that this is taking place.
- Ambitious leaders of various kinds of tried to use it for their own
- Khomeinei and the Taliban used it to support revolutions
respectively in Iran and Afghanistan.
- Saddam used it to gain support for creation of a united pan-Arab
empire ruled from Baghdad.
I think what Steven is trying to say here is that the political situation in the Middle East allows extremist movements to come to power, because the people are more willing to give extremists a try under the circumstances—a government of clerics has to be better than the Shah and his secret police, right?
This may be a valid observation, and I could generously sketch in an analogy to fascism and 1930s Europe here that might actually help make the case for invading Iraq—but that's not why we're here, is it? We were talking about root causes, and we've reached the end of Part I without ever identifying one.
Maybe if I ask the question "What was the root cause of World War II?", it will help to illustrate the problem here: History doesn't give us black-and-white answers to questions like these. We can't point to a single person or event and say, "Here was what led to World War II." A world without Hitler would have still had the Anschluss, the Kristallnacht, and all that followed; a world without Versailles would still have gone to war. (A world without Churchill might have been radically different, but there still would have been a World War II.)
Steven's response to "what is the root cause of the war?" (which, I might add, is really the "why do they hate us?" question in disguise) is that Arabs are a bunch of sore losers who don't measure up to America and are jealous and resentful of our success. While that may summarize Steven's opinions of Middle Eastern culture, a more thorough analysis would note that the Mideast states were pawns in the great-power game from about 1910 to 1990, that their borders and governments were imposed from without during this period, and that their lack of success in modern times cannot be wholly blamed on Arab or Islamic culture.
Due to a configuration problem on my end, this article didn't actually appear on the web site until the 3rd of August—by which time I had already gone beyond it and started writing my own outline. No wonder it didn't stir up much debate.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 10:03 am. comments.
Saturday, 26 July 2003
For those fickle readers
who've been saying "All this political and Australian blogging is fine, Scott, but where's the yummy REALbasic source code I'm craving?", AquaAboutBox 1.1 and Yonk 1.0b5 are now up for grabs on the source page.
(Not that either of my loyal readers has actually said this, and I realize I'm not exactly Joel on Software here, but this is also my excuse for light blogging this month. I should be back to my usual ruminations about expat life in Australia and how America looks from abroad shortly.)
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 10:36 pm. comments.
Wednesday, 23 July 2003
My father once told me never to celebrate the death of other people—that no matter how bad someone may be, rejoicing at their demise can only reflect poorly on my upbringing. Celebrating a death is bloodthirsty and barbaric, and it's not something that good people should do.
Nonetheless, and in spite of my father's words of wisdom, I have to admit I feel a certain… satisfaction in learning that Uday and Qusay Hussein are dead, and in how they died: Not in a blaze of glorious jihad, or leading a guerilla attack against our armed forces, but hunted down and cornered like rats in a hole by some highly motivated troops from the 101st Airborne. I also have to admit that I preferred Uday's death to his capture: I didn't want to see him coming out with his hands up, imposing on us to accept his surrender, and then requiring us to find a suitable punishment for a man whose hobbies included abducting and raping women, torturing Iraqi Olympic athletes, and murdering people by the thousand. I confess to some uncharitable and unChristian thoughts about whether his death was slow and painful enough, and I take solace in imagining the fate that awaits him in the afterlife.
It's not very civilized of me, but there it is.
On the other hand, I do rejoice that our forces have done their duty well, that they moved quickly and effectively on a valid intelligence tip, that they suffered minimal casualties, and I hope that Uday and Qusay's deaths will demoralize the partisans and reduce the attacks on our troops. (I have some doubts as to whether the latter will happen, but I can hope.) Better yet, I hope other Iraqis are inspired by these events to collect the $25 million tag on Saddam's head, or that someone in northwest Pakistan realizes Osama will eventually be captured or killed regardless—so he might as well do the world a favor and pocket $37 million for his troubles.
As grisly as it sounds, I also hope we get our propaganda act together and publish identifiable photos of the bodies. Announcing that we've killed Uday and Qusay is good; showing that we've killed them is immeasurably better. We're still not using "soft power" as effectively as we should, in part because the party of Newt Gingrich abandoned the idea of soft power in 1994: If a problem can't be solved with brute force, our leaders have forgotten how to solve it. Attacking the BBC for biased journalism is well and good (and, from the look of the David Kelly incident, well-deserved), but we need to do more than just refute the negative stories; we need to keep showing the world why American soliders are still dying in Iraq, and the reasons why they aren't dying in vain.
A nod in passing to Steven Den Beste, who posted his article on this subject as I was composing mine. Steven and I are on the same page for once.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 6:31 am. comments.
Monday, 21 July 2003
Then and now.
Words to ponder from the transcript of the second Presidential debate, October 11, 1999:
LEHRER: If you're just going to - you know, the use of the military, there's - some people are now suggesting that if you don't want to use the military to maintain the peace, to do the civil thing, is it time to consider a civil force of some kind that comes in after the military that builds nations or all of that? Is that on your radar screen?
BUSH: I don't think so. I think - I think what we need to do is convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations. Maybe I'm missing something here. I mean, we're going to have kind of a nation-building corps from America? Absolutely not.
Our military's meant to fight and win war. That's what it's meant to do. And when it gets over extended, morale drops.
And I'm not - I strongly believe we need to have a military presence in the Korea Peninsula, not only to keep the peace in peninsula, but to keep regional stability. And I strongly believe we need to keep a presence in NATO.
But I'm going to be judicious as to how to use the military. It needs to be in our vital interest, the mission needs to be clear, and the exit strategy obvious.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 10:29 am. comments.
Friday, 18 July 2003
On a lighter note,
Undercover Brother just came out on video down here. I don't normally feel the urge to review movies, but this was such a good idea for a film that I just wish it had lived up to its potential (although it did have its moments). For those who haven't seen the movie, it's a variation on Austin Powers—but this time the hero has an afro, a medallion, platform shoes, and collars wide enough to land aircraft. Undercover Brother and his secret organization are locked in a never-ending struggle against The Man, who is trying to destroy every aspect of African-American culture (Steve Urkel was The Man's creation) and return us to a world of white bread and mayonnaise.
Undercover Brother was a great idea, poorly executed: It was like they wrote a rough draft of the script, did a half-hearted job of casting, and then put the film in the can. More than anything it made me want to send the filmmakers back to the studio and tell them not to come out again until they got it right—though I suspect they didn't get the time and budget to make a really great film.
Take the character of The Man, for example. The Man stays in shadow throughout the movie—we never see his face—so his most important quality is his voice. It needed to be menacing. Angry. The voice of an authority figure doing a slow burn, instinctively hating what he can't control; in short, it needed to be this voice. John Vernon would have been perfect in this role; everyone in the audience who'd seen Animal House (or I'm Gonna Get You Sucka) would have subliminally understood who The Man was. Instead, alas, The Man was played by an unknown actor named Robert Trumbull, whose voice sounded more like an unmasked Scooby Doo villain. I suspect he was cast because he looked like The Man, which under the circumstances was pointless.
Another character was named The Chief, missing a golden opportunity for a Bond joke—as the black M, the character should have been named X—and the other members of the secret organization were Smart Brother, Conspiracy Brother and Sistah Girl. Taken further, this could have been much funnier: How about Expendable Brother, the likable black sidekick who gets killed one scene after his first appearance? Why not have Angry Brother show up and parody Samuel Jackson's Pulp Fiction role? Dave Chapelle's Conspiracy Brother was largely a grab bag; the script didn't give him enough good conspiracies to work with (as opposed to, say, Dan Ackroyd in Sneakers), and sometimes he just morphed into Thin-Skinned Brother or Comic Relief Brother for a scene. With a bigger budget we could have had a dozen Brother characters, parodying every African-American stereotype ever to grace the silver screen; instead we got the all-purpose Angry Stoned Offended Paranoid Rasta Ebonics Brother, which left the audience not knowing what to expect.
Denise Richards as White She-Devil was, ah, easy on the eyes (and one of the script's most inspired moments was a She-Devil / Sistah Girl fight scene, which I won't spoil here), but she isn't a comic actress: Casting Heather Locklear or Liz Hurley would have bumped the movie up another notch. On the plus side of the casting couch were Neil Patrick Harris (TV's "Doogie Howser") as the token white guy, and Billy Dee Williams as the Colin Powell character, and I had no complaints about the two lead performers; but otherwise the casting didn't contribute much, and the script didn't make the most of the concept. Done right, this movie could have turned into a franchise; as it is, it's good for a few laughs… but, alas, Undercover Brother will not return to star in From Harlem With Love next summer.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 1:21 pm. comments.
Wednesday, 16 July 2003
Judge for yourself.
The debate over whether George W. Bush made an "honest mistake" in his State of the Union Address, when he informed the American people that Saddam Hussein had attempted to purchase uranium from an African country, has been hampered by a lack of publicly available raw data. Evaluating intelligence reports is often a question of judgement; raw intel is unreliable at the best of times, delivered in whispers by people with ulterior motives, and success in the intel game requires sifting through the good and bad data and coming up with the truth.
Underneath all the charges and countercharges, the hair-splitting about lies vs. mistakes, is a fundamental question: Did the Bush Administration make a reasonable, objective judgement call, based on the information available to them at the time, when Bush made the claim in his speech? Or, did they rush to accept any piece of junk data that would support their preconceived decision to invade Iraq? Was it an honest error that you or I would make, or was it Tonkin Gulf-style misdirection that pulled the wool over our eyes?
Without access to the raw intel, the issue becomes an open-ended, red vs. blue, "do you trust President Bush" question, with lots of heat but no light on either side of the political fence. What's really needed here, what would allow people to judge the question fairly for themselves, is to let the public see the raw documents that supported the claim. These are the documents that were initially found by British Intelligence, later reported to be a fraud, that showed an attempt by Saddam Hussein to purchase 'yellow cake' uranium ore from an African country.
In an effort to do exactly that, I've obtained a copy of one of the documents. (Though this letter was also acquired by a Western intelligence agency, the document itself—a letter from a Niger government official—is not itself classified material, so I don't think I'm running afoul of any espionage laws here.) You can read the letter, and then decide for yourself: Did Bush mention this in his State of the Union Address because he was convinced it was true, because he wanted to err on the side of caution, or because he was deceiving the people (and possibly himself) with information that was clearly false? Read and decide.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 7:00 am. comments.
Saturday, 12 July 2003
Well, July 9th has come and gone, and apparently the blogosphere
didn't clap hard enough: Iran's mullahs are still in power. The mighty power of a million pens, the force that knocked Trent Lott and Howard Raines off their pedestals… couldn't lead mainstream media to take up a story that lacked an angle. Modern journalists only run three basic stories, which I'll call Watergate, Vietnam, and Pro Wrestling; "civil unrest in Iran" doesn't fit any of those templates, and so it goes on the back page.
Take Burma as an example. Here we have an ideal heroine, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate fighting for democracy and standing up to the thugs who've stolen her country—but the thugs are nameless, faceless non-entities, with too low a profile to make satisfying movie-of-the-week villains. If a member of Burma's ruling junta stepped forward and became the visible leader of the regime, the media would immediately typecast the story into the Pro Wrestling model: Mano a mano, hero(ine) vs. villain, good vs. evil, and we're off to the races. But so far the cabal in Burma has been smart enough to avoid the spotlight, and so the Burmese people suffer in relative media obscurity.
Iraq, on the other hand, had Saddam Hussein—a Snidely Whiplash clone straight from Central Casting—and a President more than happy to play the hero. It was a story a hack screenwriter would have no trouble scripting, and it fit the media template perfectly: It's the Attack in Iraq, with the Butcher of Baghdad vs. the American Avenger! North Korea fits the same Bond-villain profile: SEE the New Cold Warrior take on the Nuclear Hermit! When Dubya says "bring it on!" and taunts the feyadeen, he's only playing to type: I will DESTROY you, Arab Menace! Do you hear me? You will FEAR THE DAY you climbed into the ring with me! To the world of infotainment, this stuff is ratings dynamite; Dubya undoubtedly said a lot of things last week, but "bring it on" got more ink and airtime than all his other statements combined.
In Iran, the "villain" role is played by a bunch of guys dressed like the Ayatollah Khomeini, which in Hollywood terms is like pitching a Red Dawn sequel, and the heroes are played by anonymous students—because anyone over there who becomes less than anonymous is quickly disappeared by the mullahs. The mainstream press doesn't know how to work with this story. They can depict any given American President as a villain, and portray him to be so Evil and Powerful that None Dare Oppose Him—but they can't work that angle with an Iranian theocracy, because if the mullahs are that powerful then there's no story left to tell. Reporting that a brutal and oppressive regime is, indeed, brutal and oppressive, is something the mainstream media only does once a year at Pulitzer time. Give me a Berlin Wall falling, a statue of Saddam toppling, or an anonymous peasant going one-on-one with a tank column, and you're my top story… but generic protests I can only use as filler between the sports page and the Hollywood Minute.
So, as much as the blogosphere crowed and preened when it helped dump a bigot in the Senate and dethrone a petty tyrant in the newsroom, it pays to realize that blogs are at best a useful tool for the real agents of change in Iran. Blogs have been used to prolong the shelf life of Watergate-type stories, but on July 9 bloggers essentially failed in their efforts to pitch an Iran story to the ratings media; Jeff Jarvis acidly suggests that the major media is out of touch with the audience's news interests, as evidenced by Blogdex, but I have to point out that the ratings media have their own systems for measuring audience interest.
One last thought: There's a remarkable scene in the film Sneakers where Ben Kingsley and Robert Redford discuss the effect of belief on reality: That if you start a rumor that a bank is unstable, and enough investors hear the rumor and withdraw their money, then the bank becomes unstable, and the rumor becomes true. A "bank" is more concept than concrete, and if enough people stop believing in the concept, then the bank ceases to exist.
If enough Iranians believe the government of Iran is unstable, then it will be.
Blogs are the most advanced system to date for rapidly sending information to a widely dispersed audience: They make it trivially easy to harness the power of the Internet, and put a megaphone into the hands of virtually anyone. Fax machines helped bring down the Soviet Union in their day; blogs and Freenets and other new tools allow possibilities we haven't even explored yet. If some guy in New York City can organize mobs of people to storm the gates of Macy's and shop for a rug en masse—just for fun—then imagine what will break loose when these tools are widely available in China. For all the overblown hype about the power of the Internet to change the world, there is a dangerous little nugget of truth at the center of that meme.
And so, for now, I'll continue to clap my hands and offer moral support to the protesters trying to topple Iran's theocracy. I may not be able to do much more than keep the idea alive that the mullahs are on their way out—but if enough people believe that, and if enough people in Iran act on that belief, then maybe it comes true.
- Posted by Scott Forbes at 3:54 am. comments.